Published April 25th, 2021 at 6:00 AM
My pastor insists that “a church is not a place where, but a people who.”
And he’s right.
But as we move slowly into something more akin to the B.C. (Before COVID) world we knew, I want to celebrate the place, meaning the sanctuary in which I’ve been unable to worship for most of a year until the last few weeks (though even now with a limited number of in-person participants).
I want to raise up Psalm 84, which begins: “How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord almighty.” I do so while also remembering that the New Testament, in I Peter 2:4-5, calls people the “living stones” of which God’s house is built.
The first time I entered the sanctuary of Second Presbyterian Church was in early 1977 for the funeral of Kansas City Star columnist Bill Vaughan, my predecessor as author of the old “Starbeams” column. The sanctuary struck me then as both beautiful and a bit foreign, given that at the time I had been essentially unchurched for more than a decade. (Long story for another time.)
But about a year and a half later, that sanctuary became my spiritual home — and still is. I’ve seen friends married there and their children (including a couple of my own grandchildren) baptized in that space. Both my daughters were married in that space. I’ve said farewell forever there to dozens and dozens and dozens of friends. And I know I’m not yet done with that sad but necessary ritual of thanatopsis.
The space at times has become an orchestra hall full of instrumental and choral music. I’ve heard marvelous as well as mediocre sermons (one or two by me) in this space, including some by a pastor who was having an affair with my then-wife. So not all memories of this space are happy.
What regularly brings me back to the sanctuary is more than simply finding community, though that’s part of it. I could find community in a bar. Rather, I come to a place that calls me to be my whole self, my best self, even while I focus not on me but on others with needs greater than mine.
The Christian liturgical year, with its changing colors, has played out before my eyes in this sanctuary: Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Holy Week, Easter, Pentecost and what is called Ordinary Time. I’m sorry that we often pay more attention to the cultural calendar than we do to the liturgical calendar. I think our lives would make more sense doing it the latter way. But I’m as guilty as the next person.
Once in our sanctuary I witnessed one of our members announce from the lectern, to the surprise of most people in attendance, that she was dying of cancer and would not be seeking additional treatment. It was more proof that we are a family.
In the late 1980s in that space I heard two pastors from Texas lead a weekend retreat on AIDS and what churches, including ours, should be doing about that spreading disease. That led to the creation of our AIDS Ministry, no longer officially still alive though some of its members, including me, continue to do volunteer work in that area.
I’ve heard babies cry there. Adults, too. I’ve seen people guided through the sanctuary to learn about the stories that our many stained-glass windows and other works of art tell. Indeed, at times I think of the sanctuary as an art gallery, especially after our current senior pastor preached a sermon about those stained-glass windows, noting that they are made up of pieces both broken and beautiful, as are we all.
One of those windows, a three-part Tiffany at the rear of the sanctuary, depicts “The Parable of the Good Samaritan”. It’s a persistent reminder that our neighbor is everyone, everywhere. And in that spirit this sanctuary, while clearly Christian in design and purpose, has welcomed in people from different faith traditions (and none), too — Muslims, Jews, Hindus and others. It is ours but also everyone’s.
I’ve even seen our crowded sanctuary turn into a luminescent, living work of art when the lights were lowered and we all lit candles for a late-evening Christmas Eve service.
One Sunday morning there, in the sacrament of Holy Communion, I felt what theologians call the “real presence” of Christ. It was as if Jesus himself was sitting next to me, acknowledging my existence as I acknowledged his, though had you also been sitting next to me you would have recognized nothing out of the ordinary. When I explained the experience to a friend later he said, “I didn’t know you were a mystic.” I’ve never thought of myself in that way. I still don’t. I know only what I experienced that morning in that space.
Over the years, our sanctuary has changed a little here and there. We’ve moved things a bit to make room for people in wheelchairs, like my stepson. We’ve refloored and de-carpeted the area where the choir and organ are at the front. And recently we’ve added a wooden stage in the back to house our enhanced sound and video equipment so we can continue to offer access to worship and other activities via the internet.
But the most important recent addition has been a few people back to attend worship in person. And that’s a reminder that as much as I love this “place where,” what’s most important are the “people who.”
Bill Tammeus, a former award-winning columnist for The Kansas City Star, writes the “Faith Matters” blog for The Star’s website and columns for The Presbyterian Outlook and formerly for The National Catholic Reporter. His new book, “Love, Loss and Endurance: A 9/11 Story of Resilience and Hope in an Age of Anxiety,” was published in January. Email him at email@example.com.